By Rachel Becker For CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom will no longer lead California’s delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference “due to family obligations,” his office announced today.
After weeks of uncertainty, Newsom announced on Monday that he planned to attend the international summit in Glasgow next week. Now, the California contingent will be led by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, though Newsom will participate virtually and “focus on California’s flagship climate change policies,” communications director Erin Mellon said in a statement.
The governor’s office did not provide further details. But Newsom had no plans to make any major announcements at the conference and had privately questioned his intention to attend, according to two sources not authorized to speak publicly.
Lauren Sanchez, the governor’s senior climate advisor, outlined California’s key talking points for the conference on a call with reporters this afternoon – including that the cost of inaction is too high and that California will not wait for Washington to act on climate change.
“From last month’s oil spill to our horrific fire season, California will share a message about the urgency and a fundamental sense of the costs of this crisis,” Sanchez said.
Lawmakers and conservationists have had mixed reactions to the news of Newsom’s absence.
“Although I wish he could attend, because being in the room with the delegates from around the world really makes an impression, all secretaries and legislative leaders will join the (Lieutenant Governor) in doing our best,” said State Senator Bob Wieckowski. , a Democrat from Fremont who will attend the conference.
RL Miller, a member of the Democratic National Committee and chairman of Climate Hawks Vote, said Newsom’s actions in California mattered more than his presence in Scotland.
“I think Newsom still has a chance to be a transformative leader in terms of shutting down and phasing out the oil industry in California. I’m more interested in practical policies that bring short-term results than in rhetoric, ”Miller said. “He’s capable of giving a nice speech in Scotland or Sacramento.”
Before Newsom announced he would no longer be attending, Neena Mohan, climate justice officer for the California Environmental Justice Alliance, called on Newsom to defend “California’s bold actions towards a phase out of oil and gas and the end of neighborhood drilling, while sharing lessons learned from California carbon market failures.
Although Newsom is not present in person, Mohan said today, “our main message and our hope for the Newsom administration remain the same.”
About 190 world leaders and tens of thousands more are expected to attend the conference, called the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26.
Similar to “a trade association meeting,” as former Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols called it, this is where national leaders discuss the details of an international treaty to fight climate change. and others in the climatic world mingle and exchange ideas.
Although states do not have a formal role at the negotiating table, California has long had an outsized presence at annual meetings, particularly under former Governor Jerry Brown.
“It’s great that Governor Newsom is here, showing the California flag and cheering on the others. But like I said, the underlying fact is that the world is losing ground, not gaining ground, ”former Gov. Jerry Brown said on Wednesday, before Newsom announced he would no longer be here.
Newsom was to lead a 23-member California contingent, including documentary filmmaker and first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, California Environmental Protection Agency secretary Jared Blumenfeld, and California Air Resources Board chair Liane Randolph.
During the briefing with reporters, top California environmental officials expressed confidence in Kounalakis, a former US ambassador to Hungary with roles on the Ocean Protection Council and the California State Lands Commission.
“These are basically big diplomacy exercises across countries,” California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said. “Who better than to have, in fact, a former United States Ambassador who serves as Lieutenant Governor?”
She was not on call, but Kounalakis said in a statement, “When it comes to climate action, California’s leadership is among the most stable, consistent and reliable in the world. While California has made remarkable progress, engaging national and subnational governments is the most critical part of our fight against climate change. “
Each of the senior environmental officials outlined key areas they hoped to address at the conference, including tackling methane pollution, cleaning up carbon from California’s transportation sector, better land management for improve carbon storage and ensure equity in state climate programs.
“He’s very focused on implementing what it really takes to address the climate emergency,” California Secretary of Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld said. “And while we still have a lot to do in California – and we’re really going to learn from the international community what more we can do than they are doing – we also have a lot to teach.”
Sanchez said she would join Kounalakis in Glasgow Monday through Wednesday and meet with tribal partners and other delegates, including Canada, Mexico, the European Union “and our friends in the White House.”
Air Resources Council President Liane Randolph also has a busy schedule, with meetings at national and subnational levels, including with delegates from India, among others. “And of course we’ll be having conversations on a variety of topics, including carbon markets, the low carbon fuel standard, cap and trade,” Randolph said.
Critics of California’s cap-and-trade program, the country’s first to create a carbon market for all segments of the economy, have raised concerns that it is too low to meet greenhouse gas targets state and allow continued pollution of the front line. communities.
Ryan Schleeter, communications director for The Climate Center, said Newsom’s absence from the conference is “disappointing given that COP26 is in desperate need of an injection of ambition” and is “all the more reason to him to step it up at home and put his weight behind policies to reduce climate pollution and protect communities.
But Gary Hughes, California policy monitor with the international environmental organization Biofuelwatch, praised Newsom for withdrawing from the conference.
“We believe that the entire Californian delegation should withdraw from COP26 if it is for California to commit to promoting equity in the development of climate action,” he said. “Polluters have far too much access to the (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), while many people from affected communities around the world cannot even make it to Glasgow, let alone participate. ”
CalMatters reporter Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this story.